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Is it ever acceptable to let science influence our understanding of Genesis? A few years ago, I would have answered with an emphatic no, a reply shared by many evangelicals. It is common to hear, for instance, the accusation that the only reason a person might interpret the six days of Genesis 1 as epochs is because that person has allowed science to influence his reading of the text. In my tradition, this is not okay. I think it’s time to rethink this issue. My denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) and others ought to thoughtfully struggle with this question and develop a thorough philosophy of the realtionship between science and scripture.

Whether we realize it or not, our understanding of science has and does influece our interpretation of scripture, at least to some extent. When I read passages about the foundations of the earth, the movement of the sun, and the corners of the earth, I do not take these literally because my knowledge of science informs my decision to read these passages as a reflection of an early understanding of cosmology or as phenomenological or poetic language.

I am sure everyone is tired of hearing about Galileo, but he presents a fine example of science informing our interpretation of the Bible. Galileo’s understanding of a heliocentric universe was fiercely attacked as unbiblical, but thanks to what he and others after him have observed in nature, we now know that passages that indicate or hint at a geocentric universe are not to be understood literally. Science has informed our interpretation.

Some claim that science has nothing to do with it. A geocentric understanding of the universe is a Ptolemaic theory superimposed onto the Bible. In fact, such claims go, verses like Job 26:7, 10* and Isaiah 40:22** teach that the earth is actually round! I find this latter claim to be a unconvincing for three reasons. First, I don’t think that any of these three verses teaches that the earth is spherical. Second, I think that with a possible exception to these three verses, the rest of the Bible uses language that indicates a flat earth. Finally, whether the Bible teaches the earth is round or not is off subject. The issue is whether the Bible teaches the earth is at the center of the universe.

Even this question is beside the point for this discussion. The point is that a knowledge of science corrected a misinterpretation and misuse of the Bible. It doesn’t do any good to claim that a spherical earth was there in the text all along, or that none of the verses about the sun or a fixed earth should have been taken literally. How could any reader of the Bible have known that without the use of science?

What about Genesis 1? Is it wrong to let geology or biology inform how we look at this passage? I admit I have done just that, and now when I reread the passage, it seems pretty clear to me that a “plain reading” of this text should not be a strictly literal one. Is what I have done wrong? Should I ignore the consensus of geologists, astronomers, and biologists when I read this creation story? Or should I take what many people have observed in nature, and take a second look at Genesis 1?

Do you see the need for the church to develop a philosophy of science and scripture? Or does you church already have one? Can we go too far in using science to understand scripture? I would love to know what you think.

 

* Job 26:7  “He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.”

*Job 26:10  “He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.”

**Isaiah 40:22  “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth,
       and its people are like grasshoppers.
       He stretches out the heavens like a canopy,
       and spreads them out like a tent to live in.”

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